So, London’s first luxury retirement village has opened. Fancy moving in? OK, apartments start at £650k plus £1000 a month service charge, but look at those amenities!
I can see the attraction of living among people of the same generation. We feel comfortable with people like ourselves, who know the same song lyrics and remember slide-rules. Who’ve lived through the same historical events. Who organise their days in a similar way. But is segregating elderly people really the way forward?
Of course people should make the personal choices which most suit their situation. Retirement villages are common in other parts of the world and growing in popularity in the UK because they meet a need: well-equipped accommodation, on-site facilities and activities, and professional care for those who need it. Mostly at more affordable prices than the London one.
But there’s a wider question which is worth asking of any trend: “How far does this move us towards the kind of society we want?” For me, that society is one in which:
- people can continue to thrive as they get older
- those with physical or mental health needs can access high-quality, affordable care
- older people are regarded as equally respected members of the community
Retirement villages or sheltered housing tick some of those boxes, but looking at the wider picture, the old, the young and the middling lose out.
- Where older people live in separate communities, this reinforces the divide between old and young. We know the dangers of segregating people by race, class, faith or gender. Segregation by age matters too. To misquote David Cameron: It cannot be right that people can grow older and hardly ever come into meaningful contact with people of different ages and backgrounds. “That doesn’t foster a sense of shared belonging and understanding – it can drive people apart.”
As austerity and cuts bite here in the UK, old and young need a shared sense of belonging and understanding more than ever. We can’t afford inter-generational war.
- We limit our horizons when we mix only with our peers. Yes, it’s good to be with people like ourselves, but if we don’t mix, we miss out on new perspectives, our views don’t get challenged. For older people, engaging with the young helps to energise us and keep our minds sharp. I certainly find this true when going into schools as an exam invigilator. Young people who mix with older generations have their horizons and tolerances expanded. If old people retreat into their own communities, how will younger people understand ageing and the cycle of life?
- We miss out on positive exchanges of ideas, skills and friendship between generations. Though many of us mix within families, it’s rewarding to expand this. This, for me, is one of the joys of running table tennis sessions. Old and young enjoy the experience together. They get the chance to see each other as individuals rather than stereotyping each other as “old person” or “youth”.
So, while good residential care and sheltered communities are the right solution for some, I hope most older people can continue to live in all-age communities. Let’s see more schemes like Age UK’s Homeshare programme, and initiatives where older people share learning and exchange skills in schools and colleges. Let’s encourage all-age services in churches, and mix generations through sport – including table tennis of course!
Let’s not segregate old people unnecessarily, but try to integrate, whatever our age.